How Idolatry Works


God’s intention is to restore believers in Christ and turn them into new people. “If anyone is in Christ,” the Scripture says, “he is a new creation. The old has gone and the new has come.” As Christians, it is our job to cooperate with this “new creation” vision for our lives.

Our motivation for embracing newness of life in Jesus is quite different than moralistic motivation. Religious moralists “obey” God’s rules to feel morally straight and morally superior, and also to earn applause from God, from others, and even from themselves. Christians, on the other hand, are able to obey God precisely because they don’t have to.

Let me explain that one.

If you are a Christian—that is, if you have anchored your trust in the perfect life and substitutionary death of Jesus on your behalf, then you need to know that God smiles over you before you lift a finger to do anything good. Christianity is different than moralism in that unlike moralism, God’s embrace comes to us at the beginning of our journey versus at the end of our journey. He approves of us not because we are good people, but because Jesus was a truly “good person” in our stead. His moral straightness, his righteousness and beauty, have been laid upon us as a gift. That, and that alone, is the reason we obey…because it makes us want to obey. God does not decide to love us because we first loved him. No, we love God because he first loved us. That is biblical Christianity.


Imagine you are married woman and your husband tells you he wants to start dating around. “It’s not that I don’t love you,” he says. “I’m not saying that I want a divorce. You are extremely important to me. We have been through so much together. But I just think that my life would be more complete if I could also date some other women—play the field a little bit, you know?”

Absurd as this may sound, this is precisely what we do to God whenever we disobey Him. Every act of disobedience flows from a desire for something or someone besides God to be our first love, our true north, our reason for being. Each of us has his/her own unique potential “mistresses”—whether money, power, cleanliness, control, a relationship, material things, entertainment, or even a spouse or children. Whenever anything becomes more essential to us than God Himself (by the way, “anything” is usually a good thing), it becomes an idol. According to God, our true and everlasting Husband, we become spiritual adulterers. An idol is any person or idea, any created thing that captures our deepest affections and loyalties and will—and in so doing steals our attention away from God. An idol is anything that becomes more precious to us than Him. It’s not that we love the thing (whatever it is) too much. Rather, it’s that we love God too little in comparison to it.


Idolatry is the root beneath all sin and beneath every choice we ever make to go our own way instead of following Jesus in faith and obedience. Sin, ultimately, is not a matter of behavior, but a matter of desire.

We always obey that which we desire the most.

When we desire something more than we desire God, we will obey that something if ever and whenever we are faced with a choice to obey God or to obey it. So this is what keeps us from being good in the purest sense. Our distorted over-desires escort us into the arms of adulterous lovers, pseudo-saviors, counterfeit Jesuses that put a spell on us and make them appear more life-giving than Jesus, our one true love.

How do we do this? Thanks to David Powlison and his insightful essay, Idols of the Heart and Vanity Fair, there are several diagnostic questions that can help us effectively identify and name our specific spiritual mistresses:

What do I feel I cannot survive or function without?
(What do I feel I must have in order to enjoy life, be acceptable as a person, etc.? What are the things I am terrified of losing or obsessed about having?(

Where do I spend my time and money with the least amount of effort?
(The things we give time and money to most effortlessly are absolutely the things that we worship and serve. They are the things that we believe in our hearts will give our lives the most meaning.)

What do I think and talk about the most?
(Where do my thoughts go most quickly and most instinctively when I am alone in the car, when I awake, when I am alone in a quiet, undistracted place? As Archbishop William Temple once said, “Your religion is your solitude.”)

Which biblical commands am I most reluctant to obey?
(What do I treasure so much that, if it is threatened, I will disobey God to keep it? What is so essential to me that I will disobey God to get it?)

What things anger me the most?
(What kinds of people, things, or circumstances irritate me the most, and what about these people, things, or circumstances give them this kind of power over me? What, if it happened, would strongly tempt me to curse God or push Him out of my life? Remember Job’s wife. See Job 2:9.)

How would I fill in the blank?
I cannot and will not be happy unless _______________.


Idols are dismantled when they are first exposed and then replaced. Dismantling our idols requires that we labor in our study and meditation of Scripture to understand the many ways that Jesus fills our emptiness in a much more adequate, life-giving way than any Jesus-substitute we may be tempted to worship and serve. Replacing our spiritual mistresses means giving them a back seat to Jesus in our hearts and lives. Basically, every idol (and every sin) traces back to a self-salvation strategy. We use this strategy every time we attempt to replace something that only Jesus can provide, with a counterfeit. What does this mean for us?

It means that we must face head-on our own idols, and humbly admit exactly how the things we love more than Jesus will reduce us, empty us of ultimate meaning, and even destroy us. We must admit that our “over-desires” cannot bring us the lasting wholeness, happiness, or fulfillment (salvation!) we desire. Only Jesus can. Ironically, only when we love Jesus more than these things, we actually end up enjoying these things to a much fuller extent! As CS Lewis once said, “Aim at heaven and you will get earth thrown in. Aim at earth and you will get neither.”

When our love for Jesus exceeds our love for other things, we end up loving, cherishing, and enjoying these other things even more than we would if we had loved these other things more than we love Jesus. However, if we put the gifts in the place of the Giver, our enjoyment of the gifts ends up being spoiled. Why is this so? It is so because we are made in the image of God. The human soul is so magnificent that only God is big enough to fill it. As Pascal is famous for saying, only God is able to fill the God-shaped vacuum in the human heart.

Be possessive of anything but God—a romantic interest, a career, a net worth, a life goal—and you will never possess that thing. Instead, it will eventually possess you. It will have you and it will hold you…around the neck! This is why we are much better off when we learn to pray like the Puritan who had nothing to his name but one piece of bread and a glass of water: “What? All of this and Jesus Christ too!”


Christian growth is about learning to see clearly that Jesus will fill our hearts in much more adequate and enduring ways than any Jesus-counterfeit ever will. Using Scripture, we must immerse our minds and stir our affections with the many ways in which Jesus delivers fully and truly on the specific promises—especially the promises that our specific idols falsely make to us. For example, if we thirst for approval, only the unwavering smile of God over us through Jesus can free us from enslavement to human approval. Or, if we hunger for secure provision, only the God’s sure promise to take care of us like he does the birds and the lilies can free us from our enslavement to money and things. Et cetera.

So what about you? What are your spiritual mistresses? How are they working out for you?

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for his righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.


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8 responses to “How Idolatry Works”

  1. G. Eric Britt says:

    Good insight Scott…Well done!

  2. cp says:

    this is exactly what I needed to hear (read) this week.

  3. Matthew Walker says:

    Your description of the married woman and her lecherous husband isn’t an example of idolatry. It’s adultery. They are similar in function (violation of a covenant agreement), but it’s not idolatry. Biblically, idolatry is anything that you value or love more than God. The Bible just never describes idolatry that way. It’s always whatever replaced God as god is an idol. Read Isaiah 44. 🙂 There’s so much more here to discuss (the passages in Eph, Phil, and Col. But this is a good start.


  4. Matthew Walker says:

    Yep. There are similarities between adultery and idolatry because, as I stated, both are a violation of a covenant. But they are not the same thing or else the seventh commandment is simply a restatement of the first. While national Israel was idolatrous prior to the exile, and their idolatry constituted unfaithfulness to God, there were other ways they were unfaithful to God aside from idolatry.

    Now let me ask you a question. Have you ever considered why post-exilic prophets do not address idolatry? If heart-idolatry remains the underlying problem for believers, then why doesn’t Malachi address that as a problem in post-exilic Israel? The people clearly had a worship problem and the prophet is obviously disputing with the people (Mal 1:7-8). Why would the people offer up polluted sacrifices (the sick and lame) instead of what was required? Was their problem that something was more important to them than God, and thus they were idolatrous? If so, why doesn’t Malachi call it that?

  5. Jon Spadino says:

    Good article, I love the it and agree with the idolatry (vis a vis David Powlison). I do have some issues in the areas, for example, of sex and food and over using the idea and language of idolatry. I see sex and food as “drives” we have.

    New International Version
    “I have the right to do anything,” you say—but not everything is beneficial. “I have the right to do anything”—but I will not be mastered by anything.

    I honestly believe better language in the area (other than idolatry) is to use the language of mastering it. Yes, we need to know the bigger YES … but the language of idolatry gets a focus on the negative and can actually cause shame for people that just genuinely have strong sex drives.

    I think we have to promote sexual self mastery (and sexual integrity) in the church and s. As opposed to sexual idolatry to avoid any negative shaming

    But hey, that is just my .02c worth on it. It’s a very slight nuance from what your saying …. not a disagreement

  6. Bess says:

    Love this! How can any of us read this and not be convicted of idols.

  7. Nora Rider says:

    Dear Scott,
    I always enjoy reading your emails and today I included it with my morning devotions. After I read it, I continued reading through scripture. The following verse was in the chapter I was reading.

    That they have committed adultery, and blood is in their hands, and with their idols have they committed adultery, and have also caused their sons, whom they bare unto me, to pass for them through the fire, to devour them. Ezekiel 23:37

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